Rajasthan: Violence for votes

Written by Kavita Srivastava | Published on: October 1, 2003

Image for representation purpose only

The BJP and its Parivar have been deliberately staging confrontations with a pliant Rajasthan police to make "police atrocities" a propaganda issue for the coming Assembly polls. More ominously, in what is reminiscent of Gujarat, the Parivar has succeeded in instigating tribals into violence against Muslims

From September 17-19, 2003 Muslims were attacked by Bajrang Dal, VHP, BJP and RSS activists in Aklera town of Jhalawar district and nearby villages of Gehunkheri, Misroli, Kokhera-Lala. Kokhera-Abaad, Arania, Ratanpura, Naya Gaon and Phaphela. They ransacked houses, looted motorcycles, jeeps, cattle and poultry and also razed to the ground the masjid in Gehunkheri village. Copies of the Koran were desecrated in the vandalised masjids as also in Muslim houses that were attacked.

Fearing for their lives and not wanting a repeat of rapes and murders as in Gujarat last year, several Muslims hid in the fields and later fled the villages and moved in with their relatives in Aklera and Jhalawar towns. Some even went away to places as far as Mandsaur in MP. Terror persists in these villages even today. The Hindustan Times reporter, DK Singh, who was responsible for breaking this story in his newspaper in the last week of September, joined local civil liberties organisations in a visit to the villages three weeks later. According to him as well as a report by some of the other organisations whose members visited the area on October 13, only 40 percent of the Muslims were found still living in their homes in the villages.

In many places, women and children have not returned. In some of the villages, Muslims go to Aklera to sleep every night. Those who have returned to their villages are facing a severe boycott. Nobody sells milk to them, their goats cannot graze on common land, and sharing the village chaupal and bidi-hukah is out of the question. Children have stopped going to school both out of fear and due to enforced boycott.


Events leading to the attack on Muslims

What is significant is that the Muslims had nothing to do with the immediate cause of the attacks on them. The attacks were part of the sangh parivar and the BJP’s well thought out strategy to turn a head-on confrontation with the local authorities (over the BJP and other sangh workers breaking the law) into an all-out attack on Muslims and their properties. Preceding these immediate developments was a systematic hate campaign built up by sangh organisations like the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal among the Bhil-Meena community against the Mansuri Muslim traders. It was a sinister campaign similar to the polarisation caused among Gujarat’s tribals and Muslim traders prior to the carnage in that state in early 2002.

Said DK Singh in his report of September 26 in HT: "As in Gujarat, economic interests were said to be at stake in these Jhalawar villages, which witnessed the demolition of a mosque and looting and arson of the properties belonging to the minority community. Although agriculture is the main source of livelihood of villagers including the minority community in these areas, some Mansuri Muslims are prosperous and are engaged in lending money to the majority tribals."

According to Rustam Khan, president of Muslim Community Development, Aklera, some Muslims had lent around Rs. 17 lakh to the tribals in Kathpala and Gehunkheri villages, for which the tribals mortgaged their land. The violence started from Gehunkheri, a village where Muslims had reportedly lent around Rs. 10 lakh to the tribals. "It is possible that the tribals did not want to return the money. Economic interests could be the reason for the recent incidents," according to BL Kothari, CEO, Jhalawar Zila Parishad, who was in Gehunkheri on a ‘peace mission’.

Rustam Khan alleged that tribals had their eyes on the land owned by the minority community in Gehunkheri. "Their land has suddenly become precious because it falls in the catchment area of Chhapi dam, which would start functioning shortly. Hindu villagers had earlier asked some Muslims to sell the land to them," said Khan. Around 10 shops belonging to the minority community were burnt near Arania bus stand. "Tribals and Muslims had some differences for the last six months or so over business transactions," said Aklera’s Shehr Qazi, Hafiz Lal Mohammad."

On September 16, 2003, violent clashes took place between the police of the Aklera police station and sangh parivar activists, who were on their way to the concluding programme of a Virat Hindu Sammelan and the Sankalp Sutra rally being held in Jhalawar. The activists wanted to travel without tickets in a state roadways bus. The driver and conductor refused and this resulted in an altercation between them. Realising that the situation could escalate further, the driver took the bus to the police station. Incidentally, since the bus driver was a Muslim, he was charged with being anti-Hindu and anti-Ram.

At the police station, there was stone-throwing followed by a lathi- charge, resulting in injuries to 14 activists and 10 policemen. By evening, the state government had suspended the SDM, the DySP and the Aklera police station in-charge for the firing and lathi- charge. The injured were admitted to the district hospital.

The BJP and other sangh parivar workers declared a Jhalawar bandh the next day (September 17). Ms Vasundhara Raje, who is not only the BJP chief but also the MP from Jhalawar, reached Aklera the next day and addressed a public meeting. Her tone was aggressive. She openly declared that any attempt to touch her workers would be met with violence. Her speech emboldened the local cadres who were waiting for the green signal, so to speak.(The content of this speech needs to be scrutinised by the authorities). Local newspapers reported that it was after this public meeting and the MP’s speech that the BJP workers and other sangh parivar activists gained the confidence they needed and attacked shops and homes of Muslims in the neighbouring villages. They also raised the masjid to the ground.

So charged were they that wherever they saw an open shop they attacked both the shopkeeper and the shop. In their fanatic rage, they even attacked the SP and the collector’s car. One senior police official sustained serious injuries in his inner ear. The mob also poured hot oil over a state roadways bus clerk who was sitting at the ticket window.

By midday on September 17, in Aklera there was an atmosphere of terror in the town with crowds of BJP, Bajrang Dal and VHP workers roaming the streets, burning tyres and shouting anti-government and anti-Muslim slogans.

On September 18, a call of Hadoti bandh was given by the local VHP, BJP, RSS, Bajrang Dal, Hindu Jagaran Manch and Shiv Sena units, "to protest against the police firing" and "atrocities on Hindu activists". It meant bringing to a complete halt life in the districts of Kota, Baran, Jhalawar and Bundi. Since the roadways buses were specially targeted, they were stopped for the entire day on all routes in the region. The bandh was reported as a "great success" by the local press. It was clear that the sangh parivar had tested its machinery on the ground in these districts as all day these activists moved around closing shops, burning tyres on roads and creating terror in the minds of the minority community.

Significantly, the attack on Muslims and their shops in Aklera on September 17 was mentioned only in passing by the local newspapers. It was only when The Hindustan Times reporter DK Singh from Jaipur went there and did three stories that were published in the Jaipur and Delhi editions on September 26 and 27 that the seriousness of the issue came to light.

According to Singh, Hafez Safwan Alam, Pesh Imam at the Gehunkheri mosque, was stopped by a mob on the morning of September 17. "They put a sword to my neck and forced me to pull off my cap. They started abusing me and threatened to tear off my pyjamas. I just dashed off and managed to escape into the nearby maize field. I later heard a blast from the mosque. Still later, I saw the demolished mosque and charred copy of the Koran," said Hafez.

There were 39 families belonging to the minority community in Gehunkheri. They had learnt about the plan of attack on the intervening night of September 16-17. Three jeep-loads of people carrying 12 families left the village around midnight and reached the Aklera police station. Their pleas for help could not move the police and the mob carried out arson and looting at will. The remaining families of Gehunkheri escaped to Aklera, 15 km away, in the morning, hiding under crops of maize and jowar and braving knee-deep mud. Faqir Mohammed’s 150 hens were taken. Siraj Ansari’s sawmill and tractor were burnt. Cattle were let loose in the fields belonging to the minority community, destroying their crops. The same drama was enacted in the other four villages over the next two days.

According to Raja Ram of the PUCL, it is important to also take cognisance of the manner in which the dominant Meena community, a Scheduled Tribe, is trying to woo the Bhil-Meena tribal community. Recently, at a sammelan organised in Udaipur, the dominant Meenas had given a call to their caste members to accept the Bhil-Meenas as their own and establish "roti and beti rishta" (enter into inter-dining and inter-marrying relations) with them. This wooing is a conscious development, keeping the forthcoming elections in mind. All the accused in the Aklera attack were Bhil-Meenas. The local SP is from the dominant Meena community.


The role of the police

Although 30 first information reports (FIRs) were lodged with charges of loot, arson, dacoity, hate speech, attempt to murder and other serious charges contained in them, the police have arrested only 75 of the total 125 accused. Each one of these 75 has been released on bail by the local courts. It took the police almost four weeks to arrest one of the main accused, Kanwar Lal Meena, the RSS tehsil karyavahak who led these attacks on the Muslims.

Muslims were refused water from the public hand-pumps, nobody would come to their flour-mills to get wheat ground or to buy flour. The terrorised Muslims had complained in writing to the police but the latter took no action.

The police declared him an absconder even while he was freely accessible to the press at his private 50-bed hospital in Aklera throughout this period. It was only under considerable pressure created by news reports in The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express and on NDTV, and by organisations like the PUCL demanding his arrest, that he was finally arrested. The second main accused, Devi Lal, who is an ex-convict and a history-sheeter, has not been arrested to date. It took a personal visit by chief minister Ashok Gehlot to Aklera on October 2 before the police took any action against the accused.

According to journalist DK Singh and the joint fact-finding team representing several organisations that visited the area, Muslims from Aklera were being harassed by activists belonging to different outfits of the sangh parivar for the past nine months. Though these groups have been active in this area for many years, their activities have received an impetus after the recent carnage in Gujarat.

The PUCL report quotes Siraj of Gehunkheri as saying that video-cassettes from Gujarat on the burning of a train compartment at Godhra and the subsequent Gujarat carnage were regularly shown in Aklera and neighbouring villages and a call to boycott the Muslims was given at these meetings. Muslims were refused water from the public hand-pumps, nobody would come to their flour-mills to get wheat ground or to buy flour. The terrorised Muslims had complained in writing to the police but the latter took no action.

On March 14 this year, the RSS organised a path sanchalan (march past) during which anti-Muslim speeches were made. No action was taken against the hate speech. On March 15, when a local urs was being organised in Aklera, a trishul distribution was also organised in bizarre competition and there was resultant tension in the area. When the state government did not respond to complaints by Muslims about being denied access to the public hand-pumps, they had to get separate hand-pumps installed for themselves.

On Janamashtami day (August 20), in Katphala village near Aklera, an armed mob of about 300 people led by Devi Lal Meena and Kanwar Lal Meena, terrorised the 18 Muslim families living in the village, falsely accusing them of killing a peacock! They shouted anti-Muslim slogans and even entered their homes. Licensed pistols owned by Muslims were damaged. Devi Lal even fired at a Muslim who managed to save himself in the nick of time.

Men were beaten up, women molested and attacked, copies of the Koran desecrated and the crop that was standing in the fields burnt down. Seven FIRs were lodged naming these crimes at the time, but during investigations the police spared the leaders by removing the charges relating to attempt to murder and other serious charges.

On September 8, the Bajrang Dal and the VHP took out an over 10,000-strong victory procession in celebration of earlier behaviour. On September 12, the Bajrang Dal took out a second victory procession in Gehunkheri and Katphala. They collected Rs. 100 and 10 kg of grain from each household. The VHP pradhan from Jhalara, Patam Amit Jain also came. After several hate-filled speeches, the mob moved towards the masjid. The police cordoned off the masjid and prevented the mob from attacking it. It was after this sammelan that saffron flags marked all Hindu houses.

Muslims once again made written complaints demanding among other things the removal of the SP, JL Meena, who had remained a mute witness to these events and therefore complicit in the crimes. What happened on September 17 was only a continuation of the attacks launched on August 20 and September 12, made possible due to the irresponsible and lax attitude of local authorities in upholding the law and protecting the properties and lives of minorities on the previous two occasions.

It is very clear that the state intelligence in rural Jhalawar failed completely. The stony silence of the local police and the state administration on the build-up taking place in the area over the last six months leading up to the attacks on September 17 clearly shows that they were complicit in the crimes if not hand-in-glove with the BJP-RSS workers.

According to senior police officials of Rajasthan, the local police and administration had kept the former in the dark. District officials have been instructed to report even minor incidents like stone-throwing between two communities to the PHQ in Jaipur. This did not happen. Senior police officials told the PUCL team on more than one occasion that they were shocked to hear of these developments through media reports. According to one senior police official in Rajasthan, the writing on the wall is ominous: "If Gujarat can happen in Aklera, the message is clear that Aklera can be repeated elsewhere in the state also."

Meanwhile, the PUCL has also written to the state election commission demanding that the forthcoming elections in Aklera be postponed as the Muslim community has not returned and are still living in fear. Many other organisations have also demanded the suspension of the district SP and collector.


Pre-Election strategy of the BJP and its Sangh

At present, there is no visible pro-Congress or pro-BJP election wave evident in the state. Hence the BJP’s recourse to a strategy that they have pursued over the last five years but which has become more frequent during the past year: confrontation with the police. The reason for an altercation could be anything. The favourite issues are desecration of idols, temples or holy books. (See Communalism Combat, January–February 2002).

After the arrest of Praveen Togadia, it was VHP workers who clashed with the police over trishul distribution. They tried to defy the law but did not succeed. In June 2003, in Bandikuin (Dausa district), where Togadia was to address the VHP workers in the evening, there was a day-long battle between the police and the VHP. Railway authorities had objected to their ground being used for the VHP meeting. The workers were asked to move their tent and stage to another public space. This resulted in a violent altercation between the police and the workers after which the workers spread a rumour that the police had torn the Ramayana. This got the VHP front-page coverage in all local Hindi papers.

During her yatra, Vasundhara Raje provoked her workers to attack the police in Bhawani Mandi, Jhalawar. Even as counting of votes was in progress after student elections in Rajasthan University, three BJP MLAs provoked the students to break the police cordon and take out a victory march on the campus. This led to ‘police atrocities’ on students and journalists. The next ten days were then used by the BJP to mobilise opinion against the lathi-charge by the police.

Such incidents help the sangh parivar, firstly, to rouse their activists and also to put to work unemployed rural-urban youth. Once the situation is polarised between the police and the activists — the police have to resort to lathi-charge or even firing to restore normalcy — the leadership raises a hue and cry over alleged persecution of BJP workers by the state government. The workers are portrayed as victims of police repression. A protest bandh is then announced during which the activists are instigated into attacking members of the public or further confrontations with the police. This results in further "police atrocities".

The next step is the charge that the present government is incapable of handling law and order in the state. Having thus engineered for themselves an issue for propaganda, BJP leaders have repeatedly used public platforms, from the tehsil to the district and state level, charging the government with inability to rule.

Like the Gujarat Samachar and Sandesh in Gujarat, Rajasthan has its own versions of communal newspapers such as the Rajasthan Patrika and Dainik Bhaskar with more than 14 editions each in the state and about 10 lakh subscribers in all. These newspapers have become virtual organs of the BJP, giving the party and the issues cooked up by them front-page coverage.

The absence of an assertive adherence to the rule-of-law debate coupled with the failure of the state authorities to prevent the outbreak of such incidents, or taking stern steps when they occur, make a bad situation worse. With elections only weeks away, recent developments in Aklera do not bode well for the state of affairs in Rajasthan.

(This article is based on DK Singh’s report of September 25 and 26 in the Jaipur edition of The Hindustan Times and the PUCL’s fact-finding report prepared by Rajaram Bhadu )

Archived from Communalism Combat, October 2003 Year 10   No. 92, Special Report 1